To which League does Mr. Christoph Steskal belong? Considerations concerning an editor of a German publishing house

We may be indulgent to German spitzes if they occasionally pee on the statues of great men, for that is the very nature of these animals, but when they bark at the moon, everyone realizes that these cute little creatures are reaching out for far too high a goal. We shake our heads shouting “stop it”. The moon is not your league!

As for myself, nobody blamed me for writing books like “Die Arbeitslose Gesellschaft” (Jobless Economy) or “Das Pyramidenspiel” (The Ponzi Scheme). On the contrary, top specialists like Bert Rürup and Gerhard Scherhorn, both consecrated “economic experts” of the Federal Republic of Germany, voted for rapid publication. But now – well now I am obviously under the thumb of megalomania. Or should it be rather taken as a symptom of advanced age befalling all of us?

Do you know what league you pretend to be playing in?“, Dr. Steskal of Propyläenverlag asked me obviously outraged, when I contacted him on the phone about my manuscript “In search of Meaning and Purpose in Human History”. No, I knew nothing about my league. The really important question, so I believed rather naively, should have been whether the book was well written, well researched, convincing in its theses and whether it would appeal to an educated audience. As to good readability, I have some reason to trust myself. Meinhard Miegel, himself an expert in writing with vivid forcefulness, praised me for what he literally but, of course, exaggerating called my “brilliant style”. Alfred McCoy, a well-known American historian, after reading the last ten pages of my English(!) translation of “Meaning and Purpose” called them “well written” . Obviously, Mr. Steskal thinks differently about the matter. He plants himself broad-legged in front of the Walhalla of the supposed gods of his publishing house in order to deny me further access. In his opinion, I did not know the league to which I belong.

The man is right – at least from his point of view. If he had to judge whether the book contained the required standard of expertise, readability, persuasiveness and acceptance by an enlightened public, he would have to rely on his own  judgement and his own intellect. In other words, he himself would bear risk and responsibility. But so much strength of character is a rare phenomenon. Most people rather like to play it safe. If a non-fiction author is shielded by a professor’s title or – better – if he belongs to a renowned institute, the lecturing editor is absolved. Whatever nonsense a book may contain, the responsibility is not his.

Dear Mr. Steskal, if you had taken the trouble to read the proposed book carefully, you would have immediately noticed that this expedition into the history of man starting from hunter-gatherers and culminating in today’s warring superpowers is first and foremost a compendium summarizing the most important scientific findings of the past decades. I do not know the extent of your historical knowledge, but you will certainly not be aware of all those often breathtaking insights of modern research: after all, I have drawn information from dozens of contemporary authorities. For this reason alone, careful reading might have been worthwhile even for you personally.

No, please do not object that such a summary is – horribile dictu – nothing but a piece of popular science, which you do not want to admit in your publishing house. Mr. Steskal, don’t be insincere: you would be all too glad to count a man like Yuval Noah Harari among your authors, but the Israeli author could well be described as an ingenious compiler. No, what counts – at least for most people – is the use an author is able to make of all those countless suggestions and facts that he then turns into a book. In my case, the thoughts of Max Weber are responsible for the special orientation of my work. Although the more recent anthropological, historical and economic research is largely of Anglo-Saxon origin with Germany content with the role of a satellite not only politically but also in the intellectual sphere, the great thoughts of this man are still of primary importance. In any case, they have exerted a decisive influence on myself and my book.

How could anybody become megalomaniac when writing about Sapiens, whose greatness is so doubtful because he was rarely an angel, but much more often a devil? Self-confident I certainly am, as I believe to have hit on a source of hope: Even when man assumes the role of a devil he never lacks the voice of conscience – on the contrary, conscience speaks more clearly in many of the worst situations. The earliest historical evidence suggests that people sought justification vis-à-vis themselves and others for their very cruelest deeds. But such a history of moral justification has not yet been written. It is one of the pivots of my work – I assume, Mr. Steskal, you simply overlooked this truth which, nevertheless, is of great importance as it provides empirical evidence that Sapiens has remained the same for at least 50,000 years, not only in his genetic makeup from then until today, but also morally.

Such historically attested identity leads us directly to our present time and opens perspectives of the future. Is it presumptuous to agree with what Immanuel Kant, H. G. Wells, Arnold Toynbee, Bertrand Russell, and Albert Einstein see as the ineluctable destiny of mankind? Do you think that, am I not entitled to harbor the same conviction?

Dear Mr. Steskal, an author – probably every author – tends to overestimate himself and his personal achievements. Hardly any among them succeeds in moving up into that league where he would like to be placed, but an editor who always wants to play it safe – asking not about an author’s thoughts but about his credentials – will certainly never get beyond mediocrity. In other words, “Meaning and Purpose” doesn’t belong to your league. It is obviously not part of your nature to rely on your own thinking, your own knowledge and to assume responsibility for both.

(The German original of my book has been sent to a different publisher but the English translation is – at least for the time being – accessible on the internet: “In Search of Meaning and Purpose in History„.